Through slivers of shattered light, a mirage forms in the desert; less an oasis than one's own mirror image, the works of Arizona artist Laura Amphlett present the possibility of paradise, but only on the other side of the looking-glass. The Arizona State University sculpture major works across a number of mediums, her primary roster including laser-cut acrylic, found objects, and neon. Although her works are deeply enigmatic, their allure is less in their solutions than in their precise compositions and constructions; they're beautiful puzzle-boxes, in the most literal sense.
Long-exalted as a source of spiritual energy, the desert has historically been an inspiration for American artists seeking a point of connection with the ethereal. It finds a home in Amphlett's small-scale objects. They're a little Duchamp, and some Flavin and Turrell, with a dash of the earnestness of Mendieta (to taste). Creators reached out to Amphlett to talk divination, inspiration, and the magic hiding in plain sight in Arizona.
Self Portrait. Found suitcase, neon, laser etched acrylic, mirror film. 25"x40". 2017
Creators: Your use of reflective surfaces, whether physically reflective or implied, suggests that a certain bit of scrying is required on the part of the viewer.
Laura Amphlett: Yes, I'm glad you picked up on that correlation in my work. I believe in the philosophy that art reflects reality, especially when using the intuitive approach that I employ. My work is complex, there are numerous facets to it, and not necessarily a linear story being told—but a story nonetheless. To me, it's really up to the observer to decide and play with that narrative, that is the most satisfying part for me as an assembler. I would implore any viewer to spend more time with a piece than is normal for them. The small revelations that one can discover in the details are so important to any artist, as this sums up the whole (especially in my more layered pieces).
How did you get to the work you're doing now?
There are so many paths that led me to the materials and ideas I'm using in my work presently, but I will attempt to sum it up in a digestible way. I actually went to an art-focused charter high school in downtown Phoenix called Metropolitan Arts Institute, which gave me the best foundation I could've asked for as a young artist. One of my teachers from Metro and mentors in my life is an incredible artist and painter, Sue Chenoweth. She was incredible at getting us students to let go of preconceived ideas about what an end result of a piece should be, that there is something magical that happens when you let go of the image you're holding onto in your head. Her prompts for projects would be very open-ended and elusive, I remember one prompt that I especially loved, was using a book of a collection of poems by the philosopher Rumi. Everyone in the class took turns opening the book to a random page and pointed without looking and used that passage as their starting point. I still have my quote:
"Inside me a hundred beings
are putting their fingers to their lips and saying,
'That's enough for now. Shhhh.' Silence
is an ocean. Speech is a river."
The piece I made from this was a self portrait:
I also got comfortable using mixed media at that time, the classrooms at Metro Arts had collections of materials from any and everywhere, with unique items like yearbooks from the 30s, yarn, just an endless amount of weird little trinkets and such, things you'd find at thrift stores. I was always interested what happens when using a translucent material, like tracing paper on top of an image, to give an image more dimensionality. By slightly removing or altering the original, the original takes on separate meanings and this has always fascinated me. Since I was a child I've been an avid drawer, so it's naturally a big part of my work. In more recent works, I've been using small sketchbook thoughts, collages, drawings etc. to create more significant pieces that can exist in the real world, which has been the inevitable progression for me, where the dimensionality can be real and implied. I do this by appropriating those little works via a laser engraver, vinyl cutter, printer, etc.
I prefer for art to be true, and for that to happen for me, it has to start from an uninhibited place—that magical space when you don't have to think, you just "do." This idea always reminds me of the point in the sleep cycle where you're just about asleep but not quite, when your mind wanders and starts to take you under.
Do you spend time in the desert? If not, why not? Can you tell me how your surrounding environment plays into your process?
I used to spend more time in the desert camping with my father, and is something I look forward to when I don't have as much on my plate. When you have two jobs and go to school full time it can be hard. Also a lot of people don't realize that up north we have so many beautiful and lush places, like Sedona and Flagstaff, so it's a nice mini-escape when the heat takes over.
Like many people that live in Arizona, I wasn't born here. I was born in Northern California and moved here when I was 10. Due to the fact that I was moved from a place with nearly perfect weather, I've always had a love–hate relationship with AZ. When it gets to be 125 degrees in the dead of the summer you can feel trapped, like you need to escape, and this feeling lasts a few months. Then monsoon season rolls around and it's the most beautiful sight—the storms here are incredible and you fall in love with it again; it's this never ending cycle.
The desert is a really special place, it holds a kind of double meaning. It seems really desolate on the surface but is filled with so much vibrance when up close, when you're paying attention. I still have never seen another place with sunsets as good as what we have here, and those warm color palettes have managed to seep into my work. Another reoccurring theme that is definitely from the AZ landscape are pools (90% of homes here have them), I am always returning to a simple image of a pool, or some form of representation of it. I love the symbolism of a pool, it's reflection from the water can create an illusion that it's a flat surface, but when you get up close you realize the depth below.
Can you tell me about a particularly formative moment you've had in Arizona, and how it contributed to a piece of work or a line of thinking?
Community is such an important factor for artists and without the support of peers we all diminish. When I was around 17 or 18, I was living with some friends in Central Phoenix and was introduced to people that were connected to the underground music scene here. I remember going to a house way out in Southern Phoenix and seeing one of Marshstepper's first shows, which featured a ritualistic performance involving masks, cauldrons, mass amounts of fog, low red lights, and of course loud distorted sound backed up by indistinguishable vocals. I remember being pretty blown away and excited that there was this whole other dimension to Arizona that I wasn't aware of.
That event opened to the door to many other shows, people, and art that was incredibly inspiring. Although at the time I wasn't aware that I was in such an essential moment for underground art in AZ, I am so glad I was around and got to experience that. It was then I that I realized there were actually so many other like-minded people who could relate to how I was feeling in this weird little place we were all residing in. There was something magical about that time that we shared together, and I know those who were a part of it cherish it as well. There is still some of this happening today, and it happens in cycles, but many of the key players have since moved away to places like LA and NY.
Do you find the people around you to be receptive to your work? And where, if at all, does your work fit in?
AZ has cycles of creativity, and I can get really nostalgic for the old days when it was in that thriving moment. People feel that they outgrow AZ and tend to move away, and this creates a dynamic that can be hard to keep up with, since it's constantly changing. To make a good city like NY, LA, or SF successful, it takes roots, people who want to create that type of community, and doing the work to make it happen. It's definitely harder to get the kind of exposure you would get if you lived in one of the major coastal cities, so I don't blame anyone who seeks that out. The good thing is I've been seeing a recent upswing in art, music, and community that I'm pretty excited about. I've had more opportunity for art shows than ever, and I've seen more galleries opening, which is extremely important.
I get the impression that your process involves spending a lot of time purely looking at your work. Can you describe the feeling of looking, and the one that comes when you've found something to be finished?
There's lots of time spent looking and experimenting, and when something works out, the feeling is truly euphoric. The final moments of finishing a piece can be very tricky; when assembling, it's like a balancing act to know when to stop and to know when to walk away. You have to go with your gut and not compromise on this. I can get stuck in the studio so easily for hours because I feel an overwhelming need to complete a work, but most of the time it's actually more beneficial to get some separation from it and get out of my own head for a bit. It's almost like I have an obsessive quality to creating these things. They're my way of sorting everything out that I'm taking in, a way of visually communicating the inner workings of the mind. I suppose the true answer comes in when I receive feedback from the viewer, their observations, the validation that the ideas I'm trying to get across are coming through, this is when a work is truly complete to me.
What are you reading right now?
Virginia Woolf's The Waves is on my bedroom nightstand. Her use of soliloquies from different characters is very intriguing to me, and it's written in such a poetic way. I am a big fan of poetry and try to write a poem every week. It can be hard to follow along with this style of writing, but I'm very interested in the non-linear narrative she uses in this particular book. The way she interprets the human condition and its many layers is inspiring.
Click here to visit Laura Amphlett's website.